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Jokes abound about how some people would rather get a root canal than a shop for a new car, but people who sell cars are seriously happy to provide tips on what you, the customer, can do to make the process more pleasant.
Informing yourself about vehicles, features and prices before visiting a dealership, knowing what you can afford and keeping an open mind even if you think you know The Right Car for You will clear a path to a better buying experience – and greatly increase the likelihood that you’ll be satisfied with your purchase.
Here are some suggestions from local experts on how to make car buying go more smoothly.
1. Do your online research
"You’re sitting at home, eating a bowl of cereal, looking at your phone – we call that ‘The Virtual Showroom,’" says Al Cobb, sales manager for Russ Darrow Honda of Milwaukee. "You can be at home and in my showroom at the same time, which makes the process so much easier."
If you do your homework, he says, you might even narrow down your search to a specific model and make, leaving nothing left to do at the dealership but test drive the vehicle and set the financing.
According to Autotrader.com, the top online car-shopping activities are researching prices, comparing models, locating dealerships and seeing what’s on their lots, comparing customer reviews and getting an idea of how much a trade-in might be worth.
Most shoppers refer to third-party sites, such as Autotrader, Cars.com, Consumer Reports and Edmunds – even YouTube, Facebook and Instagram – but industry pros also suggest visiting manufacturer websites because they have the most comprehensive specs for every model and "build-a-car" features that let you conduct side-by-side comparisons of various models, trim levels and options.
Studies indicate that the average shopper spends 15 hours doing online research over three months before venturing onto a car lot. Marketing consulting firm ACA Research recommends starting by developing a list of vehicles that interest you and winnowing the list down to two to four vehicles to test drive.
2. Keep an open mind
Even after doing all that groundwork, discussing your wants, needs and finances with a sales rep at the dealership can be highly beneficial. So beneficial that Forbes.com notes that customers who spend more time with sales reps – up to a point – generally report a higher degree of satisfaction with their buying experience.
"People come in and say what car they want, but we always ask a few questions like, ‘What do you want to use it for?’ and ‘What features do you want?’" says Kevin Dodge, sales rep for Ewald Venus Ford of Cudahy. "Sometimes it becomes clear that they really need a different car than the one they’ve decided on, but more often it comes down to equipment."
Third-party and manufacturer websites do a good job of explaining what various features do and how much they cost. Some features are standard, which means they automatically come with the vehicle. Some are standard on some trim levels, but not others. Meanwhile, automakers often offer options a la carte, but also group several into bunches, calling them "technology bundles" or sport or safety "packages."
Bundling usually results in getting all the included features for less than you’d pay if you bought them separately. Still, Dodge says, sales reps ask about options to make sure you know how they work and whether it’s worth it for you to pay for them.
3. Know your financial situation
Nothing lets you down more than deciding on a vehicle, and whatever bells and whistles you fancy, and then finding out you can’t afford it. One way to make sure that doesn’t happen, says Kevin L’Huillier, internet sales manager for Lynch Chevrolet of Mukwonago, is to get your down payment in order and check your credit score.
"People come in knowing a payment they can afford, but then find out that with a 560 credit score, the payment goes way up," he says.
Online car payment calculators show just how much is way up. For example, financing $32,000 for 72 months on a new car costs $493 a month if your credit rating is 780. At 680, the payment is $541, and at 500 it’s $657.
You can check your credit score, often for free, by visiting the websites of the three main credit-reporting companies: Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. Some banks, other lenders and consumer groups also may help you. Dealers also can help you arrange financing and have their own credit applications.
Credit Karma says that while buying or leasing a vehicle is easier for people with credit ratings over 680, poor credit isn’t always a deal-breaker. You may have to pay higher interest rates, but making a large down payment or going with a pre-owned vehicle can reduce the amount you have to borrow, and thus make your payments more manageable.